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The deserted village - a casualty of North Kivu's continuing conflict

8:08 PM

Photo: Nicholai Lidow/IRIN
Woman carries charcoal through deserted village of Kimoka.
KIMOKA, 22 November 2007 (IRIN) - It may only be a short walk from its bustling neighbour Sake, but Kimoka is a ghost town. Homes are abandoned, the school is deserted and the brand new church empty. Light streams in through the open door onto huge leather drums beside the pulpit. When the congregation fled, the drums became redundant. Now the only percussion comes from the small arms fire echoing through the mountains.

Outside, dirty scraps of cloth and one child's shoe are strewn across the black volcanic earth - signs that there was once a community here. Now, there is nothing. No children laughing, no dogs barking.

Perched on the frontline of the conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo's North Kivu province, Kimoka suddenly emptied one day in early September when dissident general Laurent Nkunda's forces launched an attack on government positions.

All 2000 of the village's residents fled. Most are now housed in camps on the outskirts of Goma, the province's capital, or sheltering in Sake, where the UN mission in Congo, MONUC, has established a buffer zone between soldiers loyal to Nkunda and government forces.

"Kimoka is a dangerous place to live now. Only a few weeks ago, Nkunda's rebels refused to let people go back to their homes to collect their belongings. Things are better now, but everyone who passes through the village feels in danger," said former Kimoka resident Azariah Haawli Awhmrua.

When Nkunda's forces tried to take Sake on 4 September, MONUC pushed them back, avoiding heavy fighting. A thick blue line of peacekeepers lies between the two towns, with Nkunda's rebel movement le Congrès National pour la Défense du Peuple (CNDP) controlling Kimoka and MONUC and the national army (FARDC) in Sake.

"Nkunda's soldiers are still occupying the region. People are scared to return to Kimoka and the other smaller villages," said Lieutenant Colonel SS Oberai of MONUC's Sake battalion.

Although most of Kimoka's residents are too afraid to go home, some feel they have no choice but to cross checkpoints manned by Nkunda's soldiers to collect charcoal from Kingi Kachacha market.

They may chat animatedly as they walk through Sake, but when the women reach Kimoka, the gossip abruptly stops. It takes around 15 minutes to move through the town on foot and nobody wants to be seen there. Women bow their heads and quicken their pace.

The road curves around rolling green hills, past cassava plantations. By motorbike, the journey from Kimoka to the market takes an hour. For the displaced women of Kimoka, it takes all morning.

Photo: Nicholai Lidow/IRIN
Soldiers loyal to dissident General Laurent Nkunda rebel man a checkpoint in Kimoka.
High in the mountains, the market is unusually quiet; distant gunfire explains the lull in trade. "Before September, the market always used to be busy. But now there's hardly anyone here," said charcoal trader Ki Mengu-Jiles Hotalele. Sacks of charcoal sell for $15 there and make $20 in Sake. But for many, $15 is too expensive now, and the journey through rebel territory feels too dangerous to be worthwhile.

According to the UN, fighting between troops loyal to Nkunda, FARDC and other groups, such as Rwandan Hutu rebels, the FDLR, has displaced more than 170,000 civilians since the end of August.  

The majority live in IDP camps such as Mugunga I and II, on the edge of Goma, where anxiety is endemic. When gunshots were heard in the mountains above Mugunga on 13 November, some 40,000 previously uprooted people took flight yet again, into Goma, fearing the worst.

In Kimoka, checkpoints on both sides of town are heavily defended by up to eight armed CNDP soldiers. CNDP Lieutenant Jardin D'Amour, who guards the second checkpoint, calls the situation in Kimoka "relatively calm".

Locals, however, are constantly on edge. They say that calm periods never last long in North Kivu. "We never know what's going to happen tomorrow," said Azariah Haawli Awhmrua.

"Nkunda's rebels are behaving now, but you don't want to see them when they misbehave," said a MONUC officer with the Sake battalion. He added that MONUC is considering moving the base closer to Kimoka to reassure civilians and ease tensions.

As long as there are armed men of any stripe in Kimoka, for residents like Awhmrua, peace will always feel a long way off. "Whether they are FARDC, FDLR, UN or Nkunda, we will still feel like we are in the middle of conflict. Things will return to normal only when there are no soldiers," he said.


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